There is no word for “melancholy” or “depression” in the Bible. But the first depressives were likely Adam and Eve after their expulsion from paradise and death sentence for eating the forbidden fruit, making the fateful transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens. Meantime, God fated Eve to the agony of childbearing, and Adam to nine hundred years of farming thorns and thistles. If we’re to become the dust from which we came, why live? they may have wondered. The next depressive was likely their eldest, Cain, after God spurned his sacrifice, he killed brother Abel in a rage, then was sentenced to life as a cursed wanderer.
Later, after drowning everybody except the righteous Noah, his family and support animals, the Almighty blessed his descendant, Solomon, with a lavish kingdom, plus what the king had prayed for most earnestly despite the Tree of Knowledge debacle: great wisdom. Though initially grateful for the gift, he realized that, in the face of death, wisdom was “chasing after the wind… meaningless… full of weariness beyond uttering… a heavy burden God has laid on men.” (Proverbs 1). Solomon’s father, David, who feared no evil even in the valley of death, believed that the Lord “rescues those whose spirit are crushed” (Psalm 34:17-18) and “Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.” (Psalm 144:15). But, after being cursed for the Bathsheba adultery, the Almighty’s former “beloved” wept, “The terrors of death are fallen upon me … My God, why has Thou forsaken me?” (Psalms 55:4).
The next Biblical melancholic -- though righteous as Noah himself and presumably a former optimist -- was Job. The devil tested his divine allegiance by killing his family, taking his health and wealth. Crying “The terrors of God set themselves in array against me,” (Job 6:1-4) Job prayed for death. When the Almighty chastised him for faithlessness, the tortured man repented in dust and ashes, confessing “I am unworthy… I abhor myself.” (Job 40-42).
Due to their unrelenting sufferings since Moses’ time, the Jews were not an upbeat people. Warning of yet another famine, plague, or enslavement for infidelity, Israel’s prophets – Samuel, though Elijah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah –leavened their paranoia and pessimism.
As they had foretold, their successor, Jesus, arrived at last. But when his prediction of an imminent Kingdom of Heaven didn’t materialize, from the cross he repeated his ancestor, David’s, dispiriting words. Even so, the son of God surely welcomed a departure from the purgatory of mortal life, and a return to eternal bliss in paradise.
Wrote his evangelist successor, St. Paul: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus … who for the joy set before him endured the cross… sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2). The apostle toured the Mediterranean, urging gentiles to repent their pagan sins and, to conquer death and win eternal felicity, embrace “the God of hope [to] fill you with all joy and peace.” (Romans 15:13).
The Greeks, a proud and contented people free of the sinocentric mindset of the Jews, jailed the evangelist. But even in lock-up St. Paul, though once a vengeful Pharisee vigilante, “overflowed with joy“ (2 Corinthians 7:4), kept the faith and was released by earthquake. Though he resumed his otherworldly ministry with renewed zeal, the pagans remained a hard sell. They had their own gods, muscular, magnificent, and not afraid of a good time; they danced and drank in Dionysian revels; they loved sports and ran naked and uncircumcised in the Olympics; and they delighted in off-color comedies.
Above all, the Greeks were insatiable lovers of learning. But their myth, like that of the Jews, also included a depressing divine curse. An enraged Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock in the underworld for stealing divine fire and giving man knowledge. Nevertheless, the Ionians boasted more serious philosophers than any other people. Though Pythagoreans, Socratics, Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans were at odds on many subjects, all agreed on one thing: wisdom led to virtue and virtue led to Eudaimonia -- well-being. Eudaimonia, however, was not to be confused with happiness. Aristotle declared that since pleasure-seeking diverted and clouded the mind, the wise man must strive instead for "untroubledness” (ataraxia).
Undercutting the Athenian knowledge-is-well-being talking point, Plato’s star student, after admitting that “philosophy can make people sick,” wondered: “Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic?” Perhaps he was thinking about Pythagoras who had jumped into a volcano; Isocrates who starved himself; the “Weeping Philosopher,” Heraclitus; or Socrates himself who readily drained the hemlock for allegedly subverting the morals of youth and disrespecting the gods.
The Greeks coined the term melancholia (melaina chole), meaning black bile. Plato and Aristotle’s contemporary, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was the first to assert that disease – physical or mental – was not divine punishment as commonly believed, but an imbalance of the four organ “humours” corresponding to the four known elements: Air was blood in the liver, creating hopefulness; Water was phlegm in the brain and lungs, creating apathy; Fire was yellow bile in the gallbladder, fueling anger; Earth was black bile in the spleen, fueling melancholy. More than a few thinkers and artists suffered from too much earthly spleen and not enough airy blood. Off balance, off-center, they were naturally eccentric, if not extremist.
Later, during the Enlightenment, the English Melancholia cult celebrated artistic genius exemplified by Shakespeare’s suicidal Hamlet. By this time, humor, ironically, had come to indicate not temperament generally, but levity and laughter in particular harkening back to Greek comic playwrights and Thalia, Zeus’ daughter, muse of comedy. Satirized by Aristophanes, Democritus “the laughing philosopher,” Diogenes the Cynic, and others, Plato was no fan of the art form, so excluded poets and playwrights from his ideal Republic run by a no-nonsense Philosopher King like himself. Laughter, he insisted, was a luxury reserved for the gods since for men it meant the loss of rational control. Not so dour as his teacher, Aristotle advocated “laughing at the truth, to make truth laugh.”
Back in the Holy land, God was the only one laughing – not with amusement, but with scorn. “The wicked plot against the godly but the Lord just laughs, for He sees their day of judgment coming.” (Psalms 37:12-13). Said the parson’s prodigal son, Frederick Nietzsche, who later wrote God’s obituary, “Not by wrath does one kill, but by laughter.” Modern scholars have made strenuous efforts to find comic relief from the relentless plagues, famines, genocides, and crucifixions in the good book, but pickings are tendentious and slim. The only mortal who laughs is Abraham’s barren 90-year-old sister/wife, Sarai, when angels tell her that she will soon bear a son, “Isaac” (meaning “laughter”). The only other droll tale in 1500 pages involves the prophet, Balaam, scolded and thrown by his talking ass when she sees the Lord’s angel blocking the road to an infidel kingdom. (Numbers 22: 22-35).
So, the major sources of ancient depression – national and personal – were two: Death, the desserts of the Eden Fall according to Genesis; and the insatiable pursuit of Knowledge according to both the wise but disillusioned Solomon, and the brilliant but puzzled Aristotle. For Greeks, the Hippocrates-prescribed antidepressants were elixirs, exercise, bathing, feasting, fasting, and DUI singing and dancing. For Jews, the only God-prescribed antidepressants were fidelity to the 10 Commandments and hope for an everlasting land of milk and honey. The only time His chosen people tried pagan singing and dancing was around a golden calf which earned them hell. As for Moses, one imagines the first and last time the long-suffering prophet ever smiled was when God showed him the Promised Land from the top of Mount Nebo, but retired the 120-year-old before he set foot on it.
According to the World Health Organization, 300 million currently suffer from clinical depression. 15% attempt or succeed at suicide. 85 million are prescribed antidepressants, a 35% increase in the last six years. The first pharmaceutical antidepressants weren’t available until the mid-fifties. Before then, the afflicted sought relief much as the ancients had: with wine, drugs, exercise, festivity, baths, and/or bloodletting.
Neurologists have found that depression is not caused by an excess of splenetic black bile, but by a dearth or dysfunction of the “happy hormones,” serotonin and dopamine, coupled with excess cortisol from the fight-or-flight amygdala. They have also found that depression is twice as common in women, and higher still among introverts, obsessive compulsives, the hypersensitive and intelligent. As for the cause of the condition, experts generally agree that it is both congenital nature and life experience nurture, one usually more influential than the other depending on the case. The longevity of the affliction varies: for some it is unrelenting, for others blessedly brief; for others it comes and goes.
Psychologists identify two kinds of depression: monopolar and bi-polar. Some say the first is the worst since the second can provide some relief, though often manic, on the high side. Confided the mercurial Hemingway: "The real reason for not committing suicide is because you always know how swell life gets again after the hell is over." When on his own downside, Dostoyevsky, wrote: “My soul quakes. I have suffered for so long… I have endured the most unimaginable tortures, but there must be some bounds! I am not made of stone!” Then the author of Notes from the Underground would yo-yo with an epileptic attack. “I experience a joy that is unthinkable … complete harmony with myself and the whole world. This feeling is so bright and strong that you could give up ten years for a few seconds of that ecstasy.”
Just as some say ignorance is bliss, intelligence often leads in the opposite direction to the extent it becomes, as Solomon found, infected with its own contradictions, doubts, and shortcomings. Noting that all thinking men are atheists, Hemingway, echoing Aristotle, said: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Despite converting to Catholicism, the bi-polar novelist proved the point with his .12 gauge. “With every increase in the degree of consciousness, the intensity of despair increases: the more consciousness the more intense the despair,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard who, in The Sickness Unto Death added, “Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart… and if it is pulled out I shall die.” But, by means of a leap of faith over reason, coupled with time-release blood-and-body communion, the frail theologian pressed on but only to the age of 42.
The first to systematically analyze depression was Sigmund Freud. In his Mourning and Melancholia (1907), the founder of psychiatry drew a distinction between the two states: the first, he argued, was externally born and usually passing, while the second was internal, grounded in persistent self-judgment and reproach. Freud himself complained of migraines and depression throughout his life, especially later when colleagues such as Carl Jung and Alfred Adler challenged his messianism and sexual obsession. Before self-euthanizing with morphine, the famous analyst medicated with cocaine which, in his paper “On Coca,” (1884), he called the “white magic” elixir for every condition. Otherwise, he buoyed himself with cigars and the flattery of his followers.
In his Manic-Depressive Insanity (1921), Freud’s lesser known but more empathetic contemporary, Emil Kraepelin, the discoverer of schizophrenia, wrote:
“He [the manic depressive] feels solitary, indescribably unhappy, as a creature disinherited of faith; he is skeptical about God, and with a certain goal submission which shuts out every comfort and gleam of light, he drags himself with difficulty from one day to another. Everywhere he sees only the dark side and difficulties. The people around him are not so good and unselfish as he thought; one disappointment and disillusionment follows another. Life appears to him to be empty, the thought occurs to him to take his life without knowing why.”
Dr. Kraepelin was a student of Buddhism. His description incisively characterized the German depressives, Arthur Schopenhauer and Frederick Nietzsche, whose own philosophies owed much to Eastern thought. Buddha famously attributed all human suffering to selfish desire or will.
“My entire philosophy can be summarized in one expression: the world is the self-knowledge of the Will,” wrote Schopenhauer. Due to the perversity of this Will, he argued that misery, not happiness, was the default human condition. Thus, the Existentialist precursor whose father drowned himself, famously declared “Life is not worth living… Nonexistence preferable to existence.” His mother -- a bestselling writer and bookish bon vivant -- wrote him, “Your health, your unsociability, your dark disposition saddens me.” Though Arthur pondered following his father’s example, he soldiered on and came to agree with the Greeks. “It is a clear gain to sacrifice pleasure in order to avoid pain,” he wrote. With a note of uncharacteristic optimism, he added: “It is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” Indeed, he found a little late in life when he attracted a small worshipful group he called his “apostles.”
Nietzsche was one of them. His own father had died early on from “softness of the brain.” Though the Greek scholar considered himself an Ubermensch or Superman, he called his own depression “The worst of all penalties that exists on earth.” The philosopher’s antidepressants were opium, hashish, cocaine, Wagnerian opera, and brief bi-polar ecstasies while on solitary mountain marches. He spent his short life fighting what he called “monsters” of the mind while “gazing into the abyss” only to have “the abyss gaze back” and deliver him to the madhouse.
By this time, certain elite philosophers, poets, and artists had developed a muse of madness cult. It had ancient roots. “The greatest blessing granted to mankind comes by way of madness, which is a divine gift,” said Socrates. He didn’t mean “crazy,” but the exceptional sensibility – the Promethean fire -- of what he called the “great-souled” mortal. The genius. Greek thinkers considered hubris a fatal flaw, so tried -- with mixed results -- to avoid it. Not so with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and others whose megalomania bordering on self-divination was at the heart of their depression. When you are in the stratosphere -- whether in reality or in your own mind -- there is, as Icarus discovered while escaping the Labyrinth, only one way left to go.
Serious writers have been victims of gravity no less than thinkers. According to Touched with Fire, Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (Kay Redfield Jamison, 1993), of all people, poets and novelists suffer the highest depression and suicide rates. Consider the Icarian self-appraisal of a few greats:
Edgar Allan Poe: “My whole nature utterly revolts at the idea that there is any Being in the Universe superior to myself!”
Ernest Hemingway, “I don’t like to write like God. It is only because you never do it, though, that the critics think you can’t do it.”
Sinclair Lewis: “I’m the best writer in this here goddamn country!”
William Faulkner: “I am the best in America by God!”
Steinbeck: “The whole early part of my life was poisoned with egotism.”
Despite their fame, all were melancholics. As another, Tennessee Williams, pointed out, “Success and failure are equally disastrous.” Not surprisingly all were addicted to history’s most popular pain killer and depressing antidepressant: whiskey.
“Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.” confirmed George Simenon, another drinker. “Suffering is the main condition of the artistic experience,” seconded Samuel Beckett, yet another.
Where 20th century writers were concerned, it was never a question of who was a despondent alcoholic, but who wasn’t.
The Jameses were America’s preeminent intellectual family. Henry Sr. was a noted theologian; his first son, Henry, became a celebrated novelist; his next son, William, became the dean of American psychology. William struggled with suicidal depression early in life; his brother had a nervous breakdown of the most "formidable and distressing kind" later on. His collapse inspired William’s keen observation: “Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world and, in nine cases out of ten, his inmost consciousness is of failure. Either his ideals are pitched far higher than his achievements, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.”
Freud, William’s counterpart in Europe, revolutionized psychology when he stated that every man is a trinity: Id, Ego, and Superego. If an inflated Ego falls short of performance expectation, the Superego judge becomes the unforgiving interior voice. To the perfectionist who falls short, it may say Failure! To the A-student who makes a single mistake on a test -- Idiot! To the defeated athlete -- Loser! To the artist or philosopher who fails to achieve a lofty self-defining goal – perhaps all three.
The more intelligent, hypersensitive, and ambitious a person is, the more implacable his or her Superego tends to be. When faced with public criticism or rejection, as many great philosophers and artists were in their own lifetimes, most experienced three of the five stages of grief: this-isn’t-happening Denial, then pearls-before-swine Anger, and finally – skipping Bargaining and Acceptance – what’s-the-use? Depression. The more insecure often feel a sense of worthlessness, leading to hopelessness, leading to self-loathing. This last and most ruinous feeling can, ironically, be especially pronounced in the megalomaniac whose sense of superiority would seem to produce self-worship, but in fact often conceals the opposite.
Psychologists depict depression as anger turned inward against the self. Thus, the person who feels special or gifted may become a self-punisher if his achievements fall short of his ambitions. “When God hands you a gift,” said Truman Capote, “He also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.” Introducing himself to strangers, the writer declared: “I’m an alcoholic. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius.” Though critically acclaimed and wealthy, the In Cold Blood author confessed: “I think a lot – not just a little, but a lot – about killing myself: I wake up hoping that I will die."
Cumulative setbacks or obstacles in life – real or imagined – lead to increased disillusionment and negativity. Suffering from “malignant sadness,” the melancholic is crucified between two thieves: Past regret and Future anxiety or hopelessness. To escape pain, many repress feeling by self-deadening. Psychologists call self-numbing “Anhedonia.” The condition is not just an inability to feel pleasure but an inability to feel much at all. In turn, the sense of being half-alive, a kind of automaton, only increases the despair.
Depression is far more common in head-dwelling introverts than in extraverts, and the condition can often lead to an increasing sense of isolation if not exile. But many sufferers feel set apart from an early age: no one else seems to feel or think the way they do, and they have no interest joining in the idle amusements and superficial relationships of others.
Most major philosophers, ancient to 20th century, were childless bachelors and loners. Descartes confessed to “craving solitude.” Schopenhauer did as well, declaring: “To live alone is the fate of all great souls.” Nietzsche explained why: “I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern.” Not a few genius scientists and inventors were depressed solitaires, too: Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Faraday, Darwin, Edison, Heisenberg, Pauli, Boltzmann, Oppenheimer, Gödel, etc. “The best thinking has been done in solitude,” said the more upbeat Thomas Edison. “Be alone, that is the secret of invention,” said Nikola Tesla. Einstein agreed: “Be a loner. That gives you time to wonder, to search for the truth.”
Perhaps thinking of his mentor, Plato, who called love “ a serious mental disease,” Aristotle was the first to point out the downside of self-isolation: “Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.” Zarathustra, aka Nietzsche, would surely have agreed, though the lovelorn superman would surely have replaced the “or” with an “and.”
Christ’s crucifixion gave rise to mankind’s greatest anti-depressant: Christianity, the unlikely marriage of faith-based Judaism and reason-based Hellenism. The “Dark” Ages arrived in Christendom’s wake. Some historians argue that this millennium was not so dark despite the abject poverty, the plagues, the vassal enslavement, relentless wars, the Inquisition reign of terror, sub-30 life expectancy, and shocking infant mortality rate. Both commoner and royal considered earthly life a “veil of tears” purgatory preceding paradise for the god-fearing.
Christianity claimed to conquer the most depressing fact of life – death – but at a great cost to the aspiring immortal. “He who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal,” said Jesus (John 12:24), “Take up your cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). While monastics took this charge seriously, mystics such as St. John of the Cross and St. Catherine of Sienna took it to extremes. As Evelyn Underhill, the scholar of Christian mysticism, wrote: “The human instinct for personal happiness must be killed.” The self-mortifiers whipped themselves when experiencing any hint of pleasure, the devil’s calling card. The risen Jesus was their consolation, but many suffered a prolonged “dark night of the soul” when they felt abandoned by him. Today’s doctors might have called these “self-annihilating” mystics severe bi-polar depressives, but the doctors of the Church beatified them as “victim souls.” St. Thomas, the Vatican’s dogmatist, though considered a mystic by many due to his levitations and ecstatic visions, never indulged in such extremism, saying “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine.”
The Dark Ages dissolved into the humanist Renaissance and Enlightenment and the Quaker philosopher, John Locke, came up with a revolutionary, if not devilish idea: “the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson adopted the phrase in the Declaration of Independence: he wrote that human equality was “self-evident,” and that the Creator endowed man with “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Not surprisingly, the slaveholder’s Jefferson Bible redacted the entire Old Testament including the Eden curse, the thorn-and-thistle destiny of Adam and his descendants, and the serial enslavements that ensued.
The idea of happiness as a God-given right and life as a “gift” -- though it flew in the face of history’s record since Genesis -- was enthusiastically embraced by almost everybody. But the implication of the notion -- that anyone who was not happy was somehow flawed, sick, or broken – made things more difficult for depressives. Thus, due to the stigma of the condition, many refuse to acknowledge it and seek help. Meantime, in advertising and social media, happiness exhibitionism overflows – everyone seeming gay, delighted, elated -- making even normal people wonder if they’re not getting their fair share from God’s gratification and prosperity franchise.
The reality, as many pragmatists have pointed out, is that the greatest source of unhappiness is the pursuit of happiness. Well-being is the by-product of a balanced, fortunate life, never the goal.
Joseph Campbell summed up his lifetime study of world religions and myths with a three-word message: “Follow your bliss.” “Follow” implies that bliss is already there, or at least waiting to be rediscovered. But, discovering it nowhere at all, the blissless can’t help but feel deprived and damaged. Before Campbell, the melancholic Tolstoy said: “Want to be happy? BE!” Another appealing anodyne, but of little use to the constitutionally unhappy.
The last and most popular secret to well-being comes from New Age self-help psychology: Love Yourself. This prescription, too, is based on Just-Do-It! presto-chango magical thinking, all but impossible for self-doubters and self-sabotagers.
What then are more practical natural therapies that have had some success among depressives over the centuries?
The first is comic relief. As Aristotle first pointed out, “Melancholy men, of all others, are the most witty.” Why? Explained Nietzsche: “Man alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” Indeed, as Nietzsche’s favorite satirist, Voltaire, confessed: “I laugh in order to keep myself from going mad.” Many of today’s greatest comics have struggled with depression. To name a few: Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, David Letterman, Robin Williams, Chris Farley, Jim Carrey, Drew Carey, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Ellen DeGeneres.
A second self-therapy comes from the Jobs: they come to embrace their suffering as a teacher, not as a punisher. Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart spoke of the “honey sweetness of suffering,” St. Theresa of the “surpassing sweetness of excessive pain.” “Out of the darkness is born the light,” Catherine of Sienna said after emerging from her dark night of the soul. “In a dark time, the eye begins to see,” seconded the poet, Theodore Roethke, the Pulitzer winner for his collection, The Waking.
A third approach comes from the Existentialists. Their hero was Sisyphus condemned by the gods to rolling a rock up a mountain for eternity, only to see it roll back down. Ending his Myth of Sisyphus on an optimistic note, Albert Camus wrote that -- though the hero, seemed to be condemned to a laborious, absurd life -- “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Camus’s original inspiration was the father of Existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, who revealed: “My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known — no wonder, then, that I return the love.”
Another member of the perseverance school, Samuel Beckett, was initially denied the Nobel in Literature due to, according to the committee, his “bottomless contempt for the human condition.” Earlier, the novelist, echoing Kierkegaard, confessed: ‘I shall always be depressed, but what comforts me is the realization that I can now accept this dark side as the commanding side of my personality. In accepting it, I will make it work for me.” The pessimist’s last and most popular play was Happy Days, a black comedy. His hard-won career advice to artists such as himself might have come from Sisyphus himself: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better!”
The most messianic member of the perseverance school was the philosopher-poet-prophet, Nietzsche. “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger!” he famously declared. Late in life, he drew strength from the ancient Stoic principle of Amor Fati – Love of Fate. Ironically, though a Will-to-Power advocate, the superman came to embrace determinism – not divine or Christian, but cosmic and based on the Buddhist idea of eternal recurrence. Unlike his prophetic title, Thus Spoke Zarathustra -- which he claimed to be the Fifth Gospel and superior to the Bible and Vedas, but sold no copies – he was certain his last, Ecce Homo, would be bestseller, but it remained unpublished till eight years after his death. Not surprisingly, biographers have compared Nietzsche’s life and work to Van Gogh’s.
Even as a young man, Nietzsche had come to believe, like the mystics, that great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit. Nevertheless, he called the thought of suicide “a great consolation by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” Unlike other melancholics, he never surrendered to self-loathing “even when it seemed highly desirable to me.” In fact, his megalomania peaked with Ecce Homo: the title, based on Pilate’s words to the doomed Jesus, included such chapters as “Why Am I So Wise” and Why Am I So Clever?” Nietzsche signed the book “The Crucified One.” In a letter to his sister, he wrote: “I find the founder of Christendom superficial in comparison to myself,” adding, “Never has a man had more right to destruction than I have!” He went on to inform his few friends that his eternal-return incarnations had been Buddha, Dionysius. Alexander, Caesar, Voltaire, and Napoleon.
Soon after completing Ecce Homo, Nietzsche moved to Turin, the home of the sacred shroud. While out walking one day, he saw a carriage horse being brutally flogged by its master, he stumbled across the street, threw his arms around the animal shielding it from the blows, and collapsed. Surely, he saw himself in the poor, abused creature and became its Simon of Cyrene.
The superman spent the last decade of his life in asylums. Here he howled and danced like his Greek hero Dionysius, he entertained imaginary kings and queens, and played with children’s toys. Then he suffered strokes that left him paralyzed and speechless. But the first words of his last book, Ecce Homo, remained, inspired by his hard-won Amor Fati: “On this perfect day… A ray of sunshine has fallen.... How could I help being thankful to the whole of my life?”
Among history’s elite depressives, Nietzsche was the most eccentric and extreme. The tragic man’s last words illuminate the intellectual, psychological, and spiritual struggles of all his predecessors, Job to Solomon, Aristotle to Kierkegaard. Poets, prophets, and philosophers of today can gain strength from his work and that of kindred spirits. Their lives prove that, even when peering into the abyss, it is indeed better to light a candle than to curse the darkness -- especially when the brightest light, the aurora borealis, however brief, is born of that darkness.
David Comfort is the author The Insider’s Guide to Publishing (Writers Digest). His other nonfiction titles are from Simon & Schuster and Kensington. His literary essays appear in Pleiades, The Montreal Review, Stanford Arts Review, and Johns Hopkins' Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, and The Philosopher (UK). His short fiction appears in The Evergreen Review, Cortland Review, The Morning News, 3:AM among other journals. He is a Pushcart Fiction Prize nominee, and finalist for Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, Narrative, and Glimmer Train Awards.